Webster, we have a problem — Words the vehicles on which our thoughts ride
by Roger Hines
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February 17, 2013 12:13 AM | 867 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As troubling as is public education’s inordinate emphasis on testing, there is one standardized test that I like. It is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP (pronounced “Nape”). NAEP is a test created by the federal government for grades four, eight and 12 that allows states to see how they compare with each other in student academic achievement.

I can’t say, however, that I like what NAEP revealed in its 2012 report on student vocabulary knowledge. In brief, the report said that American students simply don’t know enough words to communicate clearly. I mean, you know, like, students, OK, are not, you know, improving their vocabulary at all. For real, dude.

In fact, 12th grade verbal scores dropped drastically between 1960 and 1980 and have stayed flat ever since. And, you know, like, for real, this trend is, you know, just so not cool. OK? I mean, WOW! Tell me about it.

Yes, vocabulary is still important. Saying to a woman, “Your face is timeless” is not the same thing as saying, “Your face would stop a clock.” Every young male suitor, therefore, best learn the word timeless. Knowledge of words is what the underclass needs and what the middle class is losing. Not prissy words like reiterate (what’s wrong with repeat?), or plethora (what’s wrong with excess?), but solid standard words like acknowledge, bolster, jinx, and eradicate — words known by most literate adults.

Our vocabulary is nothing more or less than our word supply. Doesn’t it make sense that the more words students know of the 600,000 words in English, the better off they will be? If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, then learning new words should help us with the preparation.

A strong vocabulary is good for both learners and earners, or so says the U.S. Military. The U.S. Armed Forces Qualification Test weights verbal scores twice that of math scores. Their premise is that while math and science are important, verbal knowledge is an even better predictor of general competence.

So what do we make of NAEP’s findings? Before blaming teachers, let’s remember that teachers don’t set the curriculum; they deliver it. School curricula are normally created by central office level coordinators who draw from tradition, trends, scholarly research, community needs and wishes, and the scientific and business community. Currently STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) are the squeaky wheel getting the grease, and well they should be. America’s standing in the world demands it.

But while promoting math and science, we must also equip students with general knowledge and a sound vocabulary. If we are not careful with curriculum, our specialization will become our ignorance. If we are not wise with our educational tools, our technological gadgetry will be the undoing of clear, complete, understandable English sentences.

Mark Twain did his best to set our paths straight in regard to vocabulary. Said he, “Use the right word and not its second cousin.” If Twain were alive today, he would scowl upon hearing educators refer to “paradigms” (models or examples), “pupil stations” (desks), “cooperative learning” (group work), or “winter holidays” (Christmas). He would fault educators for not setting a good example with clear vocabulary.

Emily Dickinson, the reclusive but prolific 19th century New England poet, would also reject education’s fuzzy words. She argued that words, whether inspirational, vulgar, or just plain bland, were almost eternal, stamping their image on their hearers forever: “Some say a word is dead once it is said. I say it just begins to live that day.”

There are two practices for which we should fault our schools. One is teaching vocabulary by simply handing out lists of words for students to learn. As the saying goes, “Text without context is pretext,” meaning that words without an understanding of their use in the sentence equals no understanding at all. Students learn words best by reading. It helps to have students pick from their reading the words they don’t know and make their own lists.

The other practice is that of yielding to progressive education’s emphasis on “skills” rather than knowledge. In progressive education, students learn “vocabulary skills” in isolation with the assumption they will later recognize words when they see or hear them. Later is sometimes too late. By stressing subject matter content and learning words in context — vocabulary across the curriculum — students have a ready-made connection that helps them learn and remember words.

Words are the vehicles on which our thoughts ride. According to NAEP, students need to tune up their vehicles. But students should reject the nightly vocabulary offerings of Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly’s words are too esoteric. That is, uh, they are like, uh, you know, like uncool for everyday use. Know whata mean?

Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.

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